Bye, by-elections – The Edge Review

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Aung San Suu Kyi speaking June 2013 World Economic Forum BBC debate in Naypyidaw (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Aung San Suu Kyi speaking June 2013 World Economic Forum BBC debate in Naypyidaw (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Contests for vacant Myanmar seats won’t happen this year

YANGON – There was some feigned surprise when the election commission announced last weekend that Myanmar will not, after all, hold by-elections for 35 vacant parliamentary seats.

Earlier this year commission chairman Tin Aye told Democratic Voice of Burma, a local news outlet, that with 35 seats in Myanmar’s regional and national legislatures left fallow, by-elections would be needed before the end of 2014.

But there was no official announcement in the meantime – until last Saturday. Citing Myanmar’s hosting of the East Asian Summit in November and national elections due for late 2015, Tin Aye added that the stipulation that parties must field 3 candidates in by-elections or face de-listing, was too onerous for many of the country’s 67 political parties.

The main opposition party, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), said it was happy with the jettisoning of the by-elections. Tin Aye met with Suu Kyi on September 6, the day before the commission’s announcement.

In April 2012, last time Myanmar held by-elections, the ruling, army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) was trounced by a resurgent NLD, with the iconic former prisoner Suu Kyi winning a parliament seat.

A similar outcome later this year would leave the USDP in rag order and seemingly facing the very real prospect of losing power after 2015. In free and fair elections, held under the current first past the post format, that is.

In 1990 under the current, the NLD won 60 per cent of the vote but took 80 per cent of seats, while the ruling National Unity Party won 20 per cent of the vote but only 2 per cent of the seats.

Perhaps with that result in mind, the USDP is pushing for change to a proportional representation (PR) system, as are many of Myanmar’s smaller parties, including the National Democratic Force, a NLD splinter formed to run in the 2010 elections after the NLD decided to boycott.

Switching to PR would mean the seats garnered more closely-approximate to the votes won – so the USDP would at least likely win enough seats to deny the NLD a majority, and perhaps give the USDP a shot at coalition government.

A 60 per cent vote for the NLD in 2015 would mean perhaps 40-45 per cent of seats under PR. But with the army retaining a 25 per cent bloc of unelected seats, the USDP could in theory retain a parliamentary majority by winning 26 per cent of seats next year.

The NLD, unsurprisingly, wants to keep with the status quo, as do many of the bigger ethnic minority parties. The current system likely means the latter will win a majority of seats in their regions and will gain control of local administration.

Myanmar’s parliament has just reconvened and will likely vote on whether to change the electoral system. With the USDP dominant, switching to PR seems all but a formality.

Parliament could also vote on changing Myanmar’s 2008 constitution, which gives the army a veto-wielding 25 per cent of seats in parliament.

But there will be no change, it seems, to the clause that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming President after 2015 elections.

With that off the table, the NLD will for now have to settle for amendments to the rules on how the constitution itself can be amended. As it stands, 75 per cent of lawmakers must back constitutional change, followed in some cases by a referendum.

Word is lawmakers will soon vote on lowering the threshold to 2/3’s of MPs – which will make it easier to amend the constitution in future – and then in turn tackle the clause that bars Suu Kyi from highest office. If, that is, the NLD and allies can win enough seats in 2015.

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